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Positive Feedback ISSUE49
F-117 Nighthawk phonostage
as reviewed by Mike Wechsberg
I bet every review of this interesting high value phonostage begins with something about big sound in a small package as the Samuels F-117 weighs a mere 0.8 lbs. and fits neatly in the palm of your hand. But such a characterization belittles the true breakthrough performance of this diminutive battery-powered, solid-state MC/MM phonostage that can be had for a mere $795 (mail order only, 3-year unlimited transferable warranty, made in USA). The F-117 can slug it out with phonostages costing thousands more and win hands down.
First, something about the company. Ray Samuels Audio is located in Skokie, IL and has a pretty broad line of small amplifiers, headphones amps, preamps and phonostages all available by mail order and manufactured domestically. The F-117 is the first component from Ray Samuels Audio that I have auditioned, but this small taste has made me anxious to sample more of the line. I've read some reviews of various Samuels headphone amplifiers and they invariably receive praise for their sonics. Mr. Samuels has a background in the aerospace industry and names all of his products after military aircraft. The quality of his components does honor to the tremendous engineering accomplishments embodied in their namesakes. The F-117 Nighthawk was one of this country's first "stealth" aircraft that are almost invisible to radar and changed the way air power is employed in modern warfare. I could say that in keeping with its namesake, the sound of the F-117 sort of sneaks up on you, but it fact it does not. It hits you square in the face, pulls you into the music, spins you around and spits you out—it is that dynamic and palpable.
I used the F-117 with a front end consonant with its cost. This included the VPI Scout turntable with JMW arm, and Dynavector Karat cartridge. Interconnects between the Scout and the F-117 were Kubala-Sosna Fascination and between the phonostage and preamp I used the same all-natural and very price-friendly ($325 per meter) cables from Q that Dave Clark used in his review of the F-117. However, the backend of the system was quite a bit pricier than the phonostage including the E.A.R. 868 preamp and 890 power amplifier, Marten Miles II speakers and a combination of top line interconnects and speaker wire from Harmonic Technology and XLO. Ordinarily I use the moving coil phonostage in the E.A.R. 868 and this reference system is very musical as well as revealing.
The first music I tried after warming up the F-117 for about 30 minutes was some jazz from For Jazz Audio Fans Only, Vol. 1 imported by Eastwind Imports. My first impression was of the very natural timbres from top to bottom that rendered piano, saxophone, bass, and drums in perfect balance and tonally pure. I followed this recording with some female vocals from Judy Collins and Diana Krall that reinforced my impression of the F-117's timbral accuracy and also made me aware of the phonostage's outstanding rendering of voices in natural space. Male vocalists like Johnny Cash came across as full-bodied, detailed, and emotional as they should be.
I had some concern about the ability of the single puny lithium ion battery in F-117 to allow the music to have the micro and macro dynamics and transient capability of wall powered units or other battery-power phonostages that use multiple large D-cells or something similar. My concern was clearly misplaced as I played other jazz recordings such as the Ellington Jazz Party in Stereo. All I can say is "wow!" The F-117 has tremendous punch and it can turn on a dime when the music calls for it.
I believe the F-117 is ruler flat through the midrange. Although I only spent about a week listening to The Nighthawk, I never heard a single note out of place. The midrange is very neutral and comes across as warm only when the music is recorded that way and it can be very cool when playing icier recordings. What goes in comes out; just louder. I could alter this balance slightly by playing with the loading controls on the front panel. The F-117 has two pairs of controls on the front panel, one pair for load impedance ranging from 30 ohms to 1k ohms for moving coil cartridges and 47k ohms for moving magnet cartridges. The second pair of controls varies the gain from 40 to 75dB in six increments. Although Dynavector recommends a load higher than 100 ohms for the Karat 17d3 cartridge, I found it sounded best with the F-117 at 50 ohms. I also turned the gain up to 5 (out of 6) in order to keep the E.A.R. preamp volume below the middle of its range. The F-117 is noticeably quieter than the tube-powered E.A.R. 868 preamp.
The tonal purity and dynamics of the midrange extends also to the low frequencies of the F-117. I didn't spend a lot of time plumbing the musical depths with the F-117 as playing just a couple of classical recordings with good bass drum and double string bass told me the F-117 is near perfectly natural and unforced in this region. I also only have good things to say about the highs, namely they are very natural, extended, clean and pure. Through my reference E.A.R. preamp, the Dynavector cartridge sounds a little hotter than it does through the F-117 probably because of different cartridge loading. I feel I get greater transparency in the high end through the E.A.R. that makes some good recordings sound especially like the real thing, but can be a bit brutal on inferior recording jobs. Things sound smoother through the F-117, but no less real. I think it is possible to really enjoy more recordings through the F-117 than through the E.A.R., but this may have more to do with cables or isolation from vibration than any thing else. I did not try any cable swapping while I had the F-117.
As for sound staging, the F-117 gave a realistic sense of recording space that was very wide and had good depth. In fact, the sound stage of the F-117 was a bit wider than my reference on good classical recordings such as the Mehta, Los Angeles Philharmonic recording of Stravinsky's Petrushka on London, or another Wilkinson recording, Witches Brew on RCA Living Stereo. Images on these recordings were also rock solid with great air and detail on all the instruments. I thought the recording environment was captured with a shade better coherency through my reference (a strong point of the E.A.R. electronics), although more experimentation with cables and installation could ameliorate this small difference in the F-117. Towards the end of my listening experience I placed the F-117 on a small isolation pad from Black Diamond Racing that I had around, and I set a heavy weight on top of the unit. These changes improved coherency somewhat although it was still not as good as on the E.A.R..
I haven't heard any of the multi kilobuck phonostages out there except at shows, but I don't recall ever hearing a separate phonostage in my home at any price with the refinement, smoothness, and slam of the F-117 Nighthawk. Adding the phonostage into my E.A.R. 868 preamp adds $1500 to the price and is worth every nickel, but the F-117 gives it a run for the money at just $795. The E.A.R. is designed by the well known Tim de Paravacini and uses tubes and very high quality transformers for phono gain, while the F-117 is designed by Ray Samuels using solid-state devices including off-the-shelf (I am assuming) integrated circuits. This shows that a creative designer with a solid understanding of both electronics and audio is much more important than the technology they use. I enjoyed every minute I spent with the F-117 and strongly encourage those of you in the market for a phonostage to give it a try. It should be an especially good match with any of the Silicon Arts and Concert Fidelity components that PFO reviewed recently. For the time I kept the unit the battery never ran down so I have no reason to doubt the manufacturer's claim of 50 hours use on a single charge. The relatively low cost of the Nighthawk should entice you to run to your computer now and call up the Ray Samuels web site. Mike Wechsberg